I must have gotten the old Harley up to seventy or thereabouts when I hit the flying saucer.
I knew that it was a flying saucer because when I woke up, the room looked just like those out-of-focus abductee re-enactments from Unsolved Mysteries. I was in a glaringly white room, on a table Dr. McCoy would kill for, strapped down while little robot arms did something painful looking to my left knee.
I didn't feel a thing. The arms sprouted out of a bubble hanging from the ceiling over the table. Little dark-gray wrinkly-looking people surrounded the table I was strapped onto. A pair of larger, almost man-sized insect-looking people seemed to be overseeing the work performed by the shorter people. As soon as one of the little people noticed that I was awake, he went to one of the insect-overseers.
The overseer shrilled out a few words I couldn't understand and the little one pressed a button on the side of the table. Another arm came down from the bubble overhead and positioned itself over my face. It was only inches away, blocking my vision of anything else in the room. It started to hum and I could feel it getting warm. I drew a breath to scream and everything fell out from under me. I fell into blackness, seemingly forever.
Naturally, when I woke up the first thing I did was to check to see that I still had all of my body parts. Then I noticed that the pain was gone, completely gone. I was no longer strapped down, hell, I wasn't even in the same room!
I was on a bunk sort-of bed in a room with light gray walls and no windows that I could see. I could feel a thrumming sort of vibration through the bedframe and put my hand to the wall beside me. The wall was vibrating too. I was now wearing what looked like a normal hospital gown and could see my clothes hanging in a small alcove across the room. I sat up carefully, then looked at my knee where the little guys had been working.
There were two little scars about 3/4 of an inch long spaced about three inches apart on the inside of my lower leg, just below my left knee. They were a little red, but looked pretty much healed.
I gently sat up on the bunk and wondered how long I'd been knocked out. I felt tired and stiff, like I'd been there a while, but when I rubbed my chin in thought I could feel only about two days worth of stubble. I also felt a small bump, like a blister or pimple, behind my right ear. I slowly put my feet to the floor and stood up, stretching. I could feel all my joints popping like I hadn't moved in a while. The floor was warm under my bare feet. I stood still and thought back over the events I remembered; the argument with my girlfriend, riding along a dark road at night to calm down, whipping around a curve to run smack-dab into a glowing white wall that someone had put right across the road, then waking up in that operating room. After that I was here, waking up again in the bunk bed.
Except for the Aliens I could have been in a normal hospital. It never occurred to me to think I'd been hallucinating, this was real and if I didn't want to go nuts I'd better treat it as real. I began to look for a door, but I didn't see one anywhere. I walked over and checked out my clothes in the alcove. Somehow the hospital gown didn't seem to be enough to be wearing, especially when I realized that it was all that I had on. I saw that my pants had been cut open along the inseam of the left leg, then repaired. There was only one seam on the right pantleg but two on the left. My Adam Ant T-shirt was all right and my leather jacket had only one scuff-mark that I'd never seen before. Looks like I cut a flip while flying off my bike and had landed on my shoulder.
At least the painting I'd done on the back hadn't gotten damaged. I'd put in a lot of work on that and I was really proud of it. I looked around the room before I felt the pockets of my jacket, the little Derringer I kept in one of the pockets was still there. My wallet, keys, pocketknife, and change were still in my pants pockets. My socks and boots were on the floor. I carried my clothes back to the bunk and dressed quickly. Turning to face the bunk, I pulled out the pistol and cracked it open. It was still loaded and the firing pins for both barrels were still there. I put it back in the pocket, turned, and sat on the edge of the bunk to think out my next move.
Don't give me a hard time about the gun, I've never had to use it except for target practice, but I was glad it was there if I came to need it. I prayed I wouldn't need it.
After a few quiet minutes I heard a hissing noise and looked up to see part of the wall next to the alcove slide sideways. Framed in the opening was one of the insect-looking guys. He (she? it?) looked me over and stepped into the room. I was glad to see that the door stayed open. The alien raised both hands toward me, palms out, I guess to show me that he was empty-handed. I did the same thing and the corners of his mouth kind of curled up in what I hoped was a smile.
"I hope you can tell me what's going on here." I said in a quiet voice. I was doing my best not to appear threatening. When he answered it sent a chill down my spine, not only could I understand him, but I could only hear him from my right ear.
"Indeed, if I could not, another would have been sent in my place."
"Wow, English, I didn't expect that" I managed to gasp out.
"Not at all, the microchip we implanted behind your right ear is providing a translation for you. I have one as well. Do not be afraid for that is its only function."
That explained the bump I'd felt earlier. Now that he'd told me, I noticed a rasping, hissing sort of sound whenever he spoke, although the English translation almost drowned it out.
"All right," I said, "so I hear you in my language and you hear me in yours?"
"Yes, that is correct. You have questions, no doubt. I will attempt to answer them as best I can. But first I must ask if you feel any dizziness, headache, or nausea?"
"No, I feel fine. A little stiff, but that's all."
"How is your leg? We had to make some repairs to the bone structure. It had been broken when you rammed our ship with your vehicle."
"My leg feels fine. Hey! What about my bike? How bad..."
"It will be difficult to repair," he said sadly. "It was much more damaged than yourself. We brought it on board and placed it in the cargo area, you may see it soon, if you wish."
"Are we still on the ground?"
"No, our Commander thought it wise for us to remove ourselves from the vicinity. We are now in flight, behind your planet's moon where we will be safe from detection. We have no wish to precipitate a war amongst your people. As would surely happen if our ship were to be detected and mistaken for something from your nations' enemies."
"Don't be too sure about that. We'd probably think we were hallucinating. Nobody shoots at flying saucers anymore, at least, not that I know of. Where are you guys from, anyway? And what brings you to earth?"
"Now you ask harder questions. Where we originate will be harder to explain. As to our purpose on your world... we were lost, taken off of our intended course by an unforeseeable accident. We had to land in a place with a breathable atmosphere to effect repairs. We also had to take time to determine our whereabouts so that we could plot a course for our home."
"You mean you're lost?"
"Yes, somewhat. We now know where we are... getting back where we belong will be somewhat more difficult."
"Because... we are no longer in our proper universe." the alien said sadly.
I couldn't think of a thing to say.
"We do have one recourse, however. There is one being that may be able to help. He has a small base of operations nearby. If he consents to assist us, all may yet be well. We waited until you had recovered for a specific reason. We may need your help for he is reputed to be quite fond of your world and your people."
"Who... where," I stammered," Needless to say, I was confused, and a little bit frightened.
"How could I possibly help?" Embarrassingly enough, my stomach picked then to start rumbling.
"I perceive that you are hungry. Come, we will discuss this matter further over a meal. Then you may decide whether or not you choose to help us."
I won't try to describe dinner, other than to say that the main course looked like lumpy axle grease and tasted like chicken pot pie. I was told that the person that they wanted to ask for help was a mere seventy light-years away- a weeks' travel time for the flying saucer. I didn't try to work out the speed 'cause I'm a roadie for a band, not a physicist.
After we ate, my guide took me down to a lower deck to see my bike. It was going to need everything replaced from the gas tank forward. We're talking big bucks and several weeks work in a shop. I guess I won't be riding it again anytime soon. When I asked why I wasn't hurt worse when the bike was damn near totaled, my guide told me that I had flown off the bike and right into an open cargo bay and landed on a padded floor. Talk about luck- if I'd hit something besides a open doorway I'd of been dead meat.
After I got through cussing over the damage to my bike my guide took me to meet the Captain.
One thing that I noticed- the translator kept giving all the aliens titles instead of names. My guide was called Medic, the head honcho was called Captain, and I also met an alien called Pilot, another called Merchant, and the last one I met was called Trainee. They were all the same sort of tall, insect-looking folks. No one introduced the little wrinkly dudes or called them by anything but numbers. I asked Medic about them, but he said I shouldn't worry about them as individuals since they were a single mind and personality in multiple bodies, sort of a colony creature. I didn't understand, but then these guys are aliens.
The Captain was really polite when we reached the flight deck. We spoke for an hour or so, but all I could really understand was that he (she? it?) was certain that I could help "negotiate" with whoever it was that they wanted help from. I thought it over and decided to help, after all I did owe these guys for fixing me up and I had no really pressing reason to go home. I mean, my woman was pissed at me, my job was kind of dead-ending, and worst of all, my bike was a mess. What did I have to go home to except for more arguments, finding another job, and scraping up money to fix the bike?
As soon as I agreed to help, Pilot started us off on the trip to a star they called Antuth and a planet called Bethdish. I spent the next week teaching Medic and Trainee how to play Blackjack and Poker with a pack of cards from my bikes' saddlebags. Merchant sat in on a few games, but all he wanted to talk about was how to get the rights to market decks of cards from Earth. By the time we got where we were going Trainee was shaping up into a real card shark.
One day, Medic took me up to the flight deck to see us approach our destination. I could see a planet getting larger in the big TV screen that Pilot sat in front of at a control panel that looked like a wrap-around mixing board.
"Captain, I estimate landfall in one hour." said Pilot.
"Excellent, Pilot. Good job. Begin transmitting a signal to the Museum-keeper. Remember to keep us away from the Spaceport, we don't wish to land there. Neither will the Museum-keeper thank us for calling attention to his home. He has gone to some trouble to preserve his privacy." said the Captain.
"Captain, I am receiving several signals. I will exclude each as they are identified. There are many ships orbiting above the planet's Spaceport, with much shuttle traffic to and from those that lack landing abilities. I should be able to shield us from the port authorities. They will be quite busy with traffic, in any case." said Pilot.
I was starting to get bored with the wait when Pilot reported a signal from someone who said they represented the fellow we were looking for. We were told to set a course for a specific area of space and hold a position there. When the aliens weren't busy I butted in and asked what was going on.
"We have reached the specified co-ordinates, Captain and I have established station-keeping. There are no ships in the vicinity, but sensors are showing some strange readings." said Pilot.
"What are we doing here?" I asked.
"I am not certain," said Medic. "We were told to wait here to be contacted. I had expected Captain to have us land near the Museum, but the Museum-keeper seems to have other plans for us."
"Captain," said Pilot, "I am detecting the buildup of some type of force-field surrounding the ship. Sensors indicate that a breathable atmosphere is forming within the field. Fluctuations in the field seem to indicate that we are now undetectable from the planet."
"We are being hidden from the port authorities?" asked the Captain. "Truly, the Museum-keeper must have great technologies at his disposal. Continue station-keeping and restrict sensor scans to the limits of the force-field. I believe we shall soon meet the being that we have sought."
"Or our Maker," muttered Trainee nervously.
"I wish you guys could tell me what's going on." I said. "This is making me nervous."
"We do not know what to tell you," said the Captain, "except that we should be in no danger."
I would have had less trouble believing him if I hadn't been looking out of the windshield and seen the stars blank out like someone turning out a lamp.
"What-" I began.
"Captain," interrupted Pilot, "the field has gone opaque and instrument readings indicate that we are moving at great speed. Moving away from the co-ordinates where we were to wait."
"What is our course and speed?" asked the Captain calmly.
"Course and speed unknown, Captain." said Trainee.
"The field is preventing further sensor readings." said Pilot.
"Continue station-keeping within the force-field."
"And continue sensor scans, I want to know the instant that we can detect any change in the field."
"So now we wait some more?" I asked Medic.
"Captain," said Trainee excitedly. "The field is decreasing in strength!"
"Full sensor scan."
"Sensors show that we are at rest inside a very large inclosed area." said Pilot.
"It seems we did not have to wait for long." said Medic, leaning closer to me.
"The field has completely dispersed. Sensors indicate a large number of unfamiliar ships surrounding us. They are all in a powered-down status."
"Thank you, Trainee. Pilot, continue station-keeping."
We were all looking out the windshield when the lights started coming back on. At first, all we could see was a dim gray light that seemed to come from everywhere. As it got brighter, we could see the ships that Trainee had reported.
There were thousands of them, no two alike, and they stretched as far as the eye could see. I thought I could see a wall or something way off beyond the spaceships, but I could have been wrong. If it was a wall, it had to be part of the biggest room I have ever seen 'cause it was at least five miles away. Then I noticed the strobe lights flickering ahead of us, bright as a laser and so blue they were almost unreal. They started in front of us and blinked off towards the wall as if begging us to follow.
"Captain," began Pilot.
"I see them, follow the lights, Pilot. Slowly... Trainee, full sensor sweep of this area. If this is not the Museum, it would behoove us to gain as much knowledge as possible."
The lights led us to a place where the spaceships were clustered less closely. At the end of the path they stopped being dotted lines and became a series of concentric circles, like a target, blinking from the outside toward the center.
"Obviously we are expected to land in the circular area." said the Captain. "Do so, Pilot, then power down the engines. Trainee, test for breathable atmosphere."
"Normal atmosphere and pressure, Captain."
"Landed and powering down, Captain."
About thirty yards away I could see three people waiting. From what I could see, they looked just like normal earth people. I don't know if I was expecting weird aliens or what, but I was relieved just the same.
The Captain looked at me and said: "Come, let us go meet our host. Medic, accompany us. Everyone else will stay in the ship unless I summon you."
I was goggle-eyed as we went down the ramp to the floor. All those ships! There were hundreds of them! The one closest to us looked like a white blur, as if it were a still photograph of something racing past. Another looked like a high-topped running shoe, yet another like an ocean liner. I couldn't possibly see them all, much less describe them. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping my knees from wobbling as I walked.
I looked at our "hosts" and figured that the one in the middle was the man we came to meet. On his left was a tall, stern-looking guy I wouldn't want to get mad at me and the other was a smiling, crafty-looking guy who reminded me of some concert promoters that I've met. You know, always figuring the angles to make sure he came out with the best part of any business deal. The man in the middle was averaged sized, wearing a gray, collarless suit and dark blue pullover shirt. He stepped forward and returned the Captains' bow.
"Welcome," he said. "I received your message, how is it that I may help you?" He sounded vaguely British. "I am the Collector. It is not often that we receive visitors here in the Museum, but your message spoke of an urgent need. I am flattered that you believe I can be of some assistance. Please excuse the method of transporting you here, but I value my privacy. Thank you for respecting it with your compliance with my instructions."
"I am Captain of the vessel Enquiring Lady," said the Captain. "This is Medic, and this is..."
"Darby, Tom Darby," I said. "Pleased to meet you Mr. Collector."
"Not Mister, thank you. My title is simply Collector," he smiled as if at a private joke. "These are my associates, Maxwell," he said, indicating the stern-looking guy. "And this is Guiles Thornby." Thornby gave a little bow and grinned from ear to ear.
"How can I be of service to you gentlemen?" said the Collector.
"My vessel has committed a crime against this earth-human, Tom Darby." the Captain said as my jaw dropped. "We have caused him injury and taken him away from his world. The injury was accidental, but that is no excuse. We have come to ask for your help to restore him to his proper place and ourselves to ours. We have somehow crossed timelines and entered into a universe that is not our own and in the process we have injured Tom Darby. I pledge myself to your service in exchange for your help in correcting the damage that we have done and for the safe return of Tom Darby to his world and my Crew to their proper timeline. My life is forfeit, if that is the price that you require."
"Oh my giddy Aunt!" said the Collector.
"I don't understand this 'timeline' stuff," I said. We were sitting in a lounge near the spaceship hanger. I was eating the best steak dinner I've had in my life and liking it much, much better than the stuff on the flying saucer.
There was a pretty little woman with long dark-brown hair refilling a buffet table behind me. The Collector had introduced her as Sara when we came into the lounge and then sent Maxwell aboard the flying saucer to have a look at my bike. Thornby was busy studying a small box, like a portable radio, that he pointed out the window toward the saucer.
"It is quite simple, really," said the Collector. "Timelines are based on probability, how different universes have differing histories. When the Captain said that he and his crew had crossed timelines, he meant that they come from a universe that has a different history than the one that you were born into. Sideways in time, so to speak, very similar, but still different. Every time you are faced with a decision, you are faced with a branching of timelines, universes, if you will. You perceive only the one universe, but actually there are an infinite number of them. We call the aggregate of all universes the multiverse. The sum total of all possibilities, so to speak."
"Sounds crazy to me, but I'll take your word for it." I said. "By the way, thank you for dinner."
"Thank Sara K, she is in charge of all the buffets in the entire Museum. No small task, to tell the truth."
"Just how big is this Museum, anyway?"
"That's like asking 'how high is up?' my boy," said the Collector, laughing. "It is as big as I need it to be, or wish it to be. At the moment, it has more square feet of floor space than several planets. It extends into every timeline in the multiverse. Don't ask how, you haven't the maths to understand the explanation. To describe it properly I would have to speak in terms of physics that your planet will never discover, except in a purely basic, limited sense."
"Got them!" Thornby said and reeled off a string of numbers and letters that went way over my head.
"Oh," said the Collector, seeing my confusion. "What Thornby is saying is that he has isolated the exact timeline that your alien friends came from. Guiles, thank you. Now see if you can do the same for our young friend Tom, here."
"I'll scan the his vehicle, I can see Maxwell carrying it out, now"
I looked out the window and gulped. I could see that Maxwell dude carrying my bike on one shoulder like it was a pillow or something. The Collector laughed again.
"Don't worry, Maxwell will take good care of your motorcycle. He is quite good with machinery, being a machine himself."
"How... What?" I gasped.
"Guiles, when you get a fix on the proper timeline, scan backwards to the point of the accident. I want that vehicle repaired to the shape it was in immediately prior to Mr. Darbys' run-in with the Enquiring Lady. Tell Maxwell to expedite the repairs."
"Yes, sir," said Thornby as he left the room.
"Now," said the Collector. "You were saying?"
"Uh, would I understand the answers?"
"OK, what will happen to my friends? The aliens, I mean? You wouldn't really kill the Captain for me getting hurt, would you?"
"Ah, so that is what is bothering you... No, I don't think that I should. Nor would I willingly make him a slave in exchange for your safe return. I don't work that way."
"But you sent him back to the flying saucer to wait for your decision!"
"Not at all. I made my decision as soon as he asked for your return. Any being who would offer himself up for execution or a life of slavery in order to save his companions and someone he has injured is moral enough to deserve all the help that I can give. I've had dealings with his people before, doubtless that is why he sought me out. They are a noble race of beings, I quite admire them."
"Uh, and Maxwell, he's some kind of robot?"
"Android, actually. He was build by a race of war-mongering aliens as a weapon to infiltrate and conquer other worlds, to add them to their empire. I found him adrift in space long after his builders had become extinct. I repaired him and changed his programing very slightly in order to allow him the freedom to make his own decisions. He decided to seek employment with me and acts as a sort of scout for exhibits for my Museum. Of his own free will, I might add."
"This is getting to be too much," I said, yawning. "Is there someplace I could go and lie down for awhile? My head's spinning."
"Of course, my boy, of course. Sara, do you have a room prepared for our young guest?"
"Need you ask? Of course I do!"
"Would you call a guide for him, if you don't mind?"
"I'll take him myself, I'm sure he doesn't want to follow some little robot around."
"Very good of you, my dear. Thank you. I shall be in my quarters if anyone should need me."
"If you'll come with me, Tom, I'll show you to your room," said Sara as the Collector rose from the table and strode out the door.
Sara led me along several long hallways to a suite of rooms that were bigger than my apartment back home. When she asked if they would be suitable I pointed out that I was used to living in far less comfortable surroundings.
We sat in a comfortably furnished living room and she spoke at length describing the Museum and the Collector. I didn't take me long to figure out that she was in love with him. I asked her endless questions about how things worked in the Museum and what living here was like. I even understood most of her answers.
Eventually though, my eyelids were sagging and she told me that I should get some sleep. As she was leaving she pointed out an intercom on one wall and told me that when I woke up to call her and she would have someone see about fixing a breakfast for me. After that, all I can remember was shuffling to the king-sized bed and climbing in. I don't remember my head hitting the pillow.
My wristwatch showed it was almost fourteen hours later when I was stunned into awareness by the loudest alarm that I've ever heard in my life. I staggered to the intercom and fumbled with its' controls for ten minutes before I finally got an answer.
I didn't like the answer.
I didn't like it at all because it was bad news and chilled me to the bone. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and offered to help in any way that I could if someone would just come and get me. The sharp, metallic voice on the intercom said that all of the Museum staff was being mobilized and someone would be sent to take me to the Collector as soon as possible.
I ran for the bathroom, took a quick cold shower, and dressed as fast as I could. I was standing in the living room checking the chambers of my derringer for the third time and praying that I would get a chance to use it when my guide showed up. I was too mad to pay any attention to the fact that my guide was a basketball-sized sphere that sprouted half a dozen antennas and spoke with a deep, resounding voice.
It led me to a set of stairs that I hadn't seen before, up one flight of steps, and straight into a room with huge TV screens covering all of the walls. All of the people that I had met the night before were there, plus a few more that I'd never seen before. I could still hear the voice from the intercom echoing over and over again in my head as I marched up to the Collector, offered him my help, and told him I wasn't going to take "No" for an answer.
While I was asleep, someone or something had broken into the
Museum, busted up a few exhibits, and taken a hostage with them when
they escaped. Sara K had been kidnapped.
"Out of the question, my boy," said the Collector. "I thank you for your concern, but it is really none of your affair."
The Collector turned to another of the small group and began speaking quietly. Thornby took me aside and whispered into my ear.
"Don't give up," he said. "I'm glad you feel strongly enough to want to help."
"Swan," said the Collector to a tall, thin man with a sword strapped to his back. "Tell the mechanics to get the ship ready. I want it prepared for any contingency."
Swan nodded and spun on his heel, walking away rapidly.
"Thornby, send Mr. Darby's alien friends back to their own universe, if you haven't already. I don't know how long this rescue will take. No use making them wait. I'm going to begin a scan for Sarah's whereabouts. If necessary, scouts will be sent out to check the most likely beings to have kidnapped her."
"Sir," said Maxwell. "Which ship shall we board when we are ready to go?"
"Murder Weapon," the Collector said sharply as he turned away with an angry look on his face.
Thornby's grin disappeared and his mouth dropped open. Even Maxwell's emotionless android face seemed to pale as he frowned at the name of the ship. The Collector began walking to the door, his back ramrod straight with tension.
"Mr. Darby," said Maxwell in a low voice. "We may need your help after all. I will speak to the Collector and try to change his mind." With that said, Maxwell hurried after the Collector. I looked at Thornby in puzzlement.
"Somebody's going to get killed," he said in a grim voice. "We'll have to make sure it isn't the Collector." The others nodded in agreement. I looked from one face to another and saw nothing but determined loyalty towards the Collector. That and an intensity usually shared by comrades going into a hopeless battle. "I never thought I'd see the day that Murder Weapon would leave the hanger. If he's ready to go that far, he's thoroughly angry and an angry man makes mistakes. Murder Weapon has too much power to fool around with. Someone will have to stay with him to try and keep his temper under control. He'll keep us too busy, but you he'll keep close by. Maxwell will be able to talk him around, I'm sure. Let's go get you kitted up and I'll introduce you to the rest of the team."
I nodded and looked at the two other people I hadn't met.
"This is Lucas and Fox," said Thornby. "They're two of the Collector's scouts, like Maxwell and myself." Thornby looked at them and nodded. "Let's get to it, gentlemen. We may not have much time." Without a word they turned and left. "Come on, Tom. We've got work to do."
"This is Tom Darby," Thornby said to the group. "He may be with us for a while. Tom, this is the Decipus," Guiles said while pointing to one of the aliens seated at a table in the room. "You couldn't pronounce her name if you tried so just call her Dezy. We do." Dezy looked like a giant squid with a few extra arms. She bent at the middle in a kind of bow towards me.
"This is Kerries," Thornby indicated someone who looked like a cross between an alligator and a tiger.
"Norr," Norr looked like a gargoyle right off of a French cathedral.
"Ayear-gaul," a two-foot diameter jellyfish floating in mid-air. It waved a pair of it's two-dozen ropy tentacles at me when it's name was called.
"Miszen-tak-estro-dyain, we call him Tak," a four-armed, blue-skinned shark with legs was my first thought, he stood over six foot tall.
"and lastly, Landerakh," a twelve-foot tall, bright red, barber-pole with four arms and four legs, a gash of a mouth in it's oval head, and beady, evil-looking eyes.
"There are other members of the team, but they are all away on missions for the Collector and can't be recalled without putting them or their missions at risk," said Thornby. "I've got a feeling we're going to wish we had recalled them anyway. People, we've got big trouble."
"Mistress Sarah has been carried away," said Dezy in one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard. "What could be more troublesome than that?"
"I will rend the flesh of any who has harmed her!" growled Norr.
"It's worse than that," said Thornby. "The Collector is going after Sarah in Murder Weapon."
The silence that followed that statement was deafening. Then everyone burst into loud, angry speech at once. My translator couldn't keep up with all the voices, all I could hear was a roar in six-part harmony. Tak slammed two of his fists on the table at which he was seated. I winced at the noise.
"This is madness!" Kerries hissed.
"I agree," said Ayear-gaul in a thin, piping voice. "But the madness is the Collector's. He is our leader and has saved our lives many times each. We owe him no less than that in return."
"There can be no argument," said Thornby. "The hanger crew is loading your personal fighters into Murder Weapon right now. He cannot be dissuaded from taking this ship out to find Sarah K, our only hope is to find her and bring her home before she can be harmed. If anything happens to her, the Collector may react insanely. He could do anything..."
"Pardon my ignorance," I said. "But what is everyone so upset about this ship for? I want to help get Sarah back as much as anyone, but what's so wrong with using this Murder Weapon thing to get her back in one piece? Someone please explain so I know how I can help."
"It is evil..." said Landerakh in a voice like tearing flesh.
"It is a combination of every ultimate weapon from every culture on every timeline that we have visited," said Dezy in her beautiful voice, her tentacles waving in distress.
"The Collector began it as an exhibit," Thornby explained. "He kept adding more and more weapons as we found them. Every ultimate weapon, even those of his own people. The ship grew in destructive power with every addition, on and on and on..."
"Even Maxwell fears it's power," said Tak. "and he can destroy entire worlds, himself."
"The Collector never meant it to be used," Thornby added. "It was a statement on the folly of power, the evil of destruction for it's own sake. There are more weapons built into that ship than there are on a thousand worlds..."
"And we are about to take it into battle," said Landerakh. " Against those who posses the power to attack the Museum, itself, and escape."
"May our Gods have mercy on our souls." added Dezy.
Thornby looked at each of them, nodded his head and began to speak.
"We all must be ready to leave at any time. The Collector is scanning for any sign of Sarah right now. He will want to leave the Museum as soon as he finds a trace of her, so we must be ready as soon as the ship is serviced. Collect your personal effects and board the ship in one hour. Maxwell and I have a plan to try and keep the Collector from doing anything rash, but we'll need Tom with us for the plan to work. Maxwell is working on that now. Tom, let's go finish getting you ready and send your alien friends back home while we still have time. All right people, one hour. Let's move."
We left the conference room and went to the biggest roomful of guns that I've ever seen. Thornby called it the Armory. There was more here than guns, though. I saw other rooms in the Armory that held tanks, armored personnel carriers, and gun-toting vehicles beyond description. I was overwhelmed, this place looked like it held everything on the Pentagon's Christmas wish- list and then some. The more rooms I saw, the more I began to appreciate the real size of the Museum.
Guiles picked out some little black boxes and a gunbelt that he had me put on, then showed me how to use a pistol that looked as if it should be used to hunt dinosaurs. From a control room in the Armory he sent the flying saucer on it's way and let me say goodbye to Captain, Medic and the others. I was glad they were going to get home all right and I promised I'd never forget them as long as I lived. I began to get the feeling that might not be so very long after all.
"Sir, we are most shorthanded at this time. If it were possible to recall some of your other operatives to complete the necessary crew, I would recommend doing so. You, yourself have vetoed this course of action, so we must make do with what personnel we have at hand right now. Tom Darby may prove invaluable to our success in retrieving Mistress Sarah. To put it simply: we may well find that Tom Darby has been sent to us for this very mission."
"Are you suffering from some religious delusion, Maxwell?"
"You know that is impossible, Sir."
"Sent? Bah! Who could have 'sent' him? Do you suggest that the Guardian...?"
"Perhaps someone from your homeworld, Sir?" Maxwell interrupted.
"Hah! If anyone from there even suspected my continued existence, I'd be clapped into a death cell and the entire Museum dismantled in a trice! They would have no mercy upon me for the kind of meddling that goes on here."
"Then your former pupil, the Physician, perhaps..."
"Now there you may be striking closer to the truth, but I fail to sense his hand in this. No, you engage in idle speculation there, Maxwell. He knows of the Museum, indeed, I've given him a laboratory here for his own use. But he has his own destiny to pursue... No, Darby is here by chance, nothing more. I refuse to believe anything else."
"Sir, if we are forced to employ the fighters, you will find yourself alone on the bridge..."
"And that disturbs you, eh Maxwell?"
"Murder Weapon is not to be taken lightly. It is far too dangerous for any one mind to control."
"I see. You fear I may take matters into my own hands and abuse the potential of the ship, is that it?"
"Sir, I have the utmost faith in you."
"Faith and a bit of money will buy you a meal in a restaurant, Maxwell." the Collector said bitterly. "Your 'faith' may be misplaced if you put it all upon myself. I am only a mortal being, I can make mistakes."
"It may be a mistake not to allow Tom Darby to accompany us, Sir."
The Collector paced the small room, lost in thought for a moment. He idly glanced at the readouts of several recently activated detectors, made a few minor adjustments, and continued pacing. He stopped again and again, fine-tuning the instrument settings. After a few minutes he waved a hand at the massed banks of controls and readouts.
"All of this is getting us nowhere, Maxwell. We need a different approach. Instrumentation alone is not going to find her... I'm going to have to send out something better than scanner signals." The Collector paused again, turned his back on Maxwell, and sighed heavily. "Very well, you may include Darby in the crew, but he will be your responsibility! Do you understand, Maxwell? His well-being is now your concern. My only concern will be the safe return of Sarah."
"I believe that Guiles will be willing to help me 'baby-sit' Tom Darby, Sir. He seems to have taken quite an interest in our visitor."
"So, the two of you are in this together? I thought as much. On your own heads be it, then!"
"Thank you Sir."
"Don't thank me! You may both live to regret it!"
"I very much doubt regret will enter into it, Sir. Do you wish me to send some of the Scouts to you for a briefing?"
"No, this may be beyond the capabilities of our operatives. I will need to send something different to continue the search. Leave me now, Maxwell. Get mister Darby ready to board the ship, that is why you chose to argue with me. You have my permission to let him join the crew. I will continue the search from here... I believe that it is time to send out a 'bloodhound' to find Sarah. I need to speak with one of my pets. Make sure that the mechanics and the Krell science team have the ship ready to launch on a moments notice. Now, leave me!"
"Yes, Sir" Maxwell turned and left the room before the Collector could change his mind.
The Collector sighed and pulled a signaling device from a pocket of his jacket. Pressing a control on the signaler and putting it away, he waited for a response. Very shortly, there was a half- audible sound in the room. A sort of distant thrumming grew gradually louder and closer. Finally a slight crackling hum filled the air and a fist-sized ball of light popped into existence to float before the Collector. He reached out to gently cup the light in his hand, almost caressingly. He smiled slightly, as if comforted by the presence of the ball of light.
"Sarah is missing," he said and the light turned from yellow to red in response. "I need you to find her, wherever she may be. Find her and let her know that I am coming to save her, then report back to me. Do you understand?" The light changed color to a emerald green and bobbed up and down twice in the air. "Find her!" the Collector cried. The ball of light spun in a tight circle, changed to a bright blue color, and sped away through the wall, as if the wall were no more solid than smoke.
The search had begun in earnest, now.
"I'll soon be with you, my love," the Collector whispered. "No matter what the cost."
He turned back to the readouts, studying them in impatient, furious contemplation.
"I knew you could do it," said Thornby. "Any luck with the search for Sarah?"
"Not as yet. The Collector is sending one of his pets to join the search. He has had no success with the instrument scans. His temper is getting short, I'm afraid that he yelled at me." Maxwell's face lit with a fast grin and then lapsed back into it's customary impassiveness.
"Sending out a pet?" I asked. "Some kind of alien bloodhound?"
"Which pet?" asked Guiles.
"I did not see, but I assume it is one which can access time and space even better than the scanners."
"That narrows it down," muttered Guiles. "Yes Tom, a bloodhound is as good a description as any. I'll guess that it's that little ball of light. Never could figure out just exactly what species it is, but it lives more in other dimensions than in our own. If anything can find her, it can. It seems to really care about her. We should have some clues soon, then we can get down to working to get her back."
"I am instructed to prepare Tom Darby for joining the crew."
"I've been doing just that, Maxwell. He's shaping up into a pretty good recruit already."
"Thanks, Guiles. That's good to hear," I said. "I don't want to be babied, I want to pull my weight and be able to be counted on like everyone else."
"We will need to replicate a fighter for you, Tom Darby," Maxwell said. "For emergencies, and there is another precaution I would wish to take."
"Already taken care of, Maxwell. I took the liberty, myself. I wanted to make sure nothing could happen to Tom," said Guiles mysteriously. "But you can still take care of the fighter 'cause I haven't had the time to do that."
"Good," said Maxwell. "Weapons are my specialty. Let us see what we can work up for you, Tom Darby."
Maxwell led us to a massive control panel in another room of the Armory. He sat down and started pressing buttons and moving slide controls, then he began typing something so fast that his hands were a blur. He talked while he was typing and seemed not to be distracted by either activity.
"I suggest that we begin with a control system that will already be familiar to you. I have studied your vehicle most thoroughly while I was making the necessary repairs to it last night. The handgrip controls will be most familiar to you and will speed your becoming accustomed to the craft."
"You mean it'll handle just like my motorcycle?" I interrupted.
"Basically, yes. Now I will add the cockpit enclosure, drive systems, weapons and power systems, shield generators, onboard computers, and so forth..."
I watched the monitor as a blueprint rapidly took shape as Maxwell typed.
"Now for some aerodynamic control surfaces in case you have to enter an atmosphere."
"Better put in a limited time-jump capability," added Guiles. "Just in case he has to get back to the Museum on his own. In case we're all temporarily- um, indisposed, and he winds up alone."
He means dead, I thought.
"Yes, I had already considered that," said Maxwell. "Now to bring the craft from the drawing board into existence. Tom Darby, look over into that area just ahead of us."
I looked from the screen to the place that Maxwell was pointing to and gaped as a cloud of tiny sparkles began to coalesce into being. I kept looking from the screen to the sparkles as they got denser and more solid-looking. After about two minutes the sparkles were gone and on the floor ahead of us was the reality of what had been just a drawing on a screen. It looked like something from some TV show about war in space. It was slim, fast, and somehow deadly-looking. I tried to find something to compare it to, but only wound up at a loss for words. Nevertheless, it did tickle a memory loose in the back of my mind.
"Care to give it a name?" Guiles asked with a grin on his face.
"Widow Maker," I said after a moment. It did kind of look like the F-104 Starfighter that I was thinking of right then.
"I'll take that as a compliment," said Maxwell. "Now I'll have it transferred to Murder Weapon and we can set you up in a simulator for a little bit of practice. We may not have too much time left before we receive news of Sarah's location."
"If she is harmed, my vengeance will be terrible to behold," he said aloud. "I will wring the last breath of life from all who have taken part of her abduction."
Quietly, a humming sound began to be perceptible in the air. Gradually the sound got louder, closer, and intruded upon the Collector's thoughts. He began to look about the room with hope in his eyes replacing the insanity that had lately been there. It had been many hours since the Collector had sent his pet in search of Sarah. Countless foes from his past had been scanned and dismissed from consideration, for none of them showed the slightest sign of having perpetrated the daring assault upon the Museum and the Collector's lover. Each dismissal increased his agitation as the search grew more and more protracted. As each minute passed, Sarah's safety grew less probable.
At last, the small ball of light that was the Collector's pet serenely passed through the solid walls of the room as if they did not exist. It hovered before him, changes of color flashing from one to another rapidly, throwing odd shadows on his grim but hopeful face.
"Have you found her?" he asked of the light. "Is she unharmed?"
The light bobbed in mid-air and assumed a steady yellow coloring. It floated gently over to a control keypad and hovered there. Tiny beams of light lanced from the iridescent glow and played over the keypad in a complex rhythm. A screen lit, filled with numbers and symbols and the Collector studied it intently.
"She lives," he breathed in a quiet voice tinged with relief. "We have a chance then."
He studied the odd symbols further and discerned their meaning. His mouth formed a grim line as their import registered to his worried mind. He typed in a command and another screen lit in response. It showed Sarah, bound in chains, in a small chamber many lightyears distant from the museum. Rage bubbled up inside the Collector like lava inside a volcano about to explode in mindless fury.
"So, they dare to pit themselves against me," he said. "But I shall show them the price of their folly!"
He stabbed a button viciously with a lean finger and began to speak into a hidden microphone. His voice rang out into the Museum to every level and chamber.
"She has been found! Report to Murder Weapon and prepare for immediate launch. Our enemy is now known- and shall be made to suffer for their crime. She is alive! We go now to avenge and release her. And may their Gods have mercy upon their souls, for I shall have none!"
He shut down the machines, turned to leave the room, and called to his pet.
"Come, you are needed," he said to the glowing ball of light.
We hurried to a nearby room and stood there for a moment. I was about to ask what we were doing standing around when I heard a sharp whistle and felt really strange. I could see sparkles of light dancing in front of me, blocking my vision. Then I felt a stomach-churning lurch, as if the floor had been yanked out from under me. When the sparkles faded I could tell that we were in a different room. Instead of the Armory I could see the Hanger, that huge room full of ships that had been my first glimpse of the Museum.
There was a vehicle waiting for us, looking like a cross between a golf cart and a big sled. It didn't have any wheels and I was unsurprised when we got into it and started flying. We weaved between hundreds of parked spaceships, some sitting on the floor and the rest floating above it. The room was even bigger than I had first thought. The ranks of ships went on and on with no end in sight. There were more shapes, sizes, and colors of spaceships than I could possibly describe. One thing I did notice, though, was that they seemed to arranged so that the smaller ships were closest to where we had started from. Now we were going through some really big spaceships and we went further they got bigger and bigger.
"There," said Maxwell as he pointed to a vague blur on the edge of visibility. "That is Murder Weapon."
Guiles told me little details about all the ships we were passing, but when we got close enough for me to get a good look at Murder Weapon, I forgot every word that he had said. I don't know if I can even begin to describe that ship. I'm going to try though.
From one angle it looked like a naked woman jumping off of a diving board at a swimming pool, then as we moved to approach it broadside and got even closer it began to look more like a long-bodied squid with only four short arms. We kept getting closer and closer and it kept getting bigger and bigger. Guiles later told me that it was nine miles long and the main hull was two miles in diameter. The arms were spread outward and ahead of the ship. I could see so much detail as we approached, but finding words to express it in seems hopeless. I can say that it was the most beautiful and the most dangerous thing that I had seen in the museum.
Our vehicle finally came up to the great curve of it's hull, a door irised open before us, and we floated inside. I looked back over my shoulder and watched the huge door iris closed and shuddered. For some reason I was getting scared. As we got out of the vehicle, Maxwell had to help me 'cause my legs had seemed to turn to rubber. After a few steps I was all right again, but butterflies were still flying around in my stomach. Guiles stopped at what had to be an elevator door as Maxwell went inside. He looked at Guiles and pressed a button, the elevator door closed and left Guiles and myself alone, waiting.
"Don't worry about it," he said to me. "This ship affects everyone that way. I can barely keep my knees from knocking, myself."
"Thanks Guiles," I said. "What do we do now?"
"We go to the Bridge and wait for the Collector, if he isn't here already."
The elevator door opened again, we went in, and Guiles pressed a button. Without any feeling of motion, the elevator took us to the Bridge. I watched the elevator door close and then it opened right back up again. We stepped out into a room as big as a football field with desks or control panels scattered across the floor. The Collector was there already and so were the aliens I had met earlier in the museum briefing room. Lucas, Fox, and Swan were there too, seated at control panels. The Collector was sitting in what had to be the captain's chair, Maxwell stood on his left side, and the Scouts were each at their own seats at different control panels. Maxwell waved his hand at a pair of seats to the Collector's right and then sat down. Guiles and I went to the indicated seats and sank into them. I blinked in surprise when a small ball of lig
ht rose up through the floor and began to hover over the Collector's left shoulder. This must be the pet that Guiles and
Maxwell had talked about
"Fox," said the Collector. "Take us out through the main portal. When we are in normal space I shall give you coordinates for our course."
"Yes Sir," Fox said as he touched several controls in rapid motion.
I felt a slight throb through the soles of my feet and looked at the huge screen hanging in midair in front of us. I could see that we were in motion. The rescue of Sarah K had begun.
"I'm on my way, my love," I heard the Collector mutter under his breath. No one else acted as if they could hear him. "I will let nothing get in my way."
The Collector reeled off a string of numbers that meant nothing to me, but Fox and Lucas must have understood. They seemed to be the ones flying Murder Weapon, although it had gotten hard to tell who was doing what. In the hours since we had left the Museum I had seen more of the aliens who made up the ship's crew. There were some pretty oddly shaped people working for the Collector. The strangest thing was that I could think of them all as people. I thought I was open-minded back home when all I had seen for variety was human people with different skin colors, but your eyes get opened quite a lot when you start meeting folks who were born on different planets. Maxwell told me that there were nearly a thousand people aboard Murder Weapon and he meant alien people. About a third of the control stations were manned (Beinged?) now that we had a course set and were under way. It was beginning to look like a costume party at a science fiction convention in here. I wish I brought a camera, 'cause words were failing me.
"Fox, set up a detector routine in the forward scanners," said the Collector. "Run a systems check on all weapons systems, Maxwell."
"Isn't it about time you told us who we're going up against?" Guiles asked the Collector.
"They are called Lexaptuorkellnast and their leader is named Akeptzaxodur. You could call them pirates and not be far off the mark."
"Sir," Lucas said. "It will take just under sixty hours for us to reach those co-ordinates."
"Good," said the Collector. "Activate stealth mode, put everyone on eight-hour shifts until further notice, and have the engineers bring all systems to readiness. I will be in my quarters attempting to get some sleep. Guiles, the bridge is yours.
The Collector rose and left the huge room. The little ball of light followed after him like the pet that it was. As the doors closed behind him Guiles and Maxwell looked at each other and began a quiet conversation. I didn't need to hear what they were saying to tell that they were worried. I got up and wandered over to them anyway 'cause I had gotten curious.
"He's gone off the deep end," said Guiles.
Maxwell nodded in agreement.
"Why couldn't we have just used the Museum's teleport systems to bring Sarah back?" Guiles continued. "We didn't need to leave... Or we could have used a time-capsule to go directly to her location. This is totally unnecessary!"
"I had begun to think along similar lines myself, Guiles." said Maxwell quietly. "I fear the Collector has become unbalanced, erratic. Our mission now must be not only the safe return of Sarah, but the return of reason to the Collector."
"What are we gonna do," I asked. "Mutiny? It seems to me that what we really need to do is try to keep from using these super-weapons on the ship. Just kinda sneak in and rescue Sarah and hightail it back to the Museum."
"You have the correct idea Tom Darby," said Maxwell. "But it's execution may prove difficult. We will be fortunate to be able to convince the Collector to avoid retaliation against Sarah's kidnappers. Until we are appraised of the Collector's next intentions, however, we cannot make any further plans to keep his temper in check."
"Well, you wanted me along to help keep him form doing anything stupid," I pointed out. "Any suggestions on how I'm gonna do that?"
"If he starts some kind of vendetta against the kidnappers then his homeworld will be sure to find out about it. They'll start combing the timelines for traces of him. He could wind up on trial for his life. We'd be in danger, too. Everything about the Museum and it's exhibits violate their laws," said Guiles.
"How's that?" I asked. "I mean, why should they care?"
"While the Collector seldom uses anything but perfect replicas of the objects he exhibits, the very act of gathering them would be considered to be altering the history of some timelines. That is the law that the Collector violates," said Maxwell. "Their punishment is often death for such a crime."
"How can making copies of stuff be a crime?" I asked.
"It's like this," said Guiles. "They figure that if something or someone is supposed to be gone from the universe, even a copy being on a different timeline violates natural laws. They think that the whole universe could become unraveled do to some kind of paradox. He told me once that his people played 'God' to some half-civilized planet, and they damn near destroyed themselves. Since then they've had a hands-off policy on every other planet. They're supposed to be able to observe, but not to interfere."
"That sounds silly," I said. "But I can see some sense in it. But surely they could help people without playing 'God'?"
"They chose not to see it that way," said Maxwell. "They fear some renegade could do untold harm to the universe. Indeed, some have done so. But other so-called renegades have usually taken it upon themselves to combat such people. The Collector has always been such a one, to right the wrongs done by others of his people. But he has always worked in the background, invisibly adding his strength to the combat of evil. I fear that Sarah's kidnapping has been too much of a strain upon him. He is no longer acting from the shadows, he is lashing out in anger and endangers not only himself but us all."
"Why do you keep following his lead, then?"
"Because, Tom Darby, there is not a single one of us that do not owe him our lives many times over. The Krell crewmembers you see around us were on the edge of extinction, I was lost and adrift in space..."
"I was killed in a fire," added Guiles. "He saved us all, in one way or another."
"You mean that you're a copy?" I gasped. "The real you is dead?"
"That's right," said Guiles. "But I'm just as real as I ever was before the fire."
"Awesome..." I muttered, stunned by the news. "Is Sarah a copy too?"
"No," said Maxwell. "Sarah is an artificial person entirely. She was made by the Collector as a test of his copying and teleport processes. "
"What? You mean he made her just to love him? That's creepy!"
"No!" said Guiles forcefully. "She loves him because he is worthy of her love, not because he wrote that love into the program he used to create her. He was just as surprised as anyone when she told him how she felt. He'd already abandoned the research as being immoral by then. He said it was too much like the kind of manipulation that his people had done in their past. Now he will save lives, but he refuses to create them. He was just trying to perfect the copying process. I guess you could say that he had perfected it too much."
"So you guys are all copies of dead people?"
"Maxwell isn't a copy, but he's one of the few originals among us. The Krell are originals, too. But we can all be re-copied if we were to get killed," said Guiles.
"Man! This is heavy! It sounds like you guys are immortal or something."
"In a way, we are. Swan over there has been killed thousands of times. He is the test-case of the copying process for living beings. His main job used to be to go out and get himself killed just to test the revival machinery. Now he hardly ever dies, but if he does he can be brought back to life in a matter of minutes. We all can never permanently die."
"Damn," I whispered. "This is almost too much to be believed. What happens if you get too old?"
"Then the next copy has all of our memories," said Guiles. "But a younger body. Swan is over seven hundred years old, but had the body of a thirty year-old in his prime."
"Gulies," I asked. "How many times have you died?"
"Only once since the fire that killed my original. I remember it all- even my life before the fire, but I don't think about it much. I'm alive now, that's all that counts."
"Oh damn," I said. "This is just too weird."
"That is why we must save the Collector from himself," said Maxwell simply.
"Tom Darby," boomed the ships intercom system. "Please report to the Collector's quarters."
"I thought he was going to get some sleep," I said.
"He probably can't," said Guiles. "Could you, if your lover were in danger?"
"No, I guess not."
"It is likely that he wishes to speak with you about our reasons for asking that you be included on this mission," said Maxwell. "He may wish to dissuade you from taking an active part in any combat. Indeed, I would also wish you to remain aboard the ship. If only to keep him from risking your life in some ill-considered move."
Guiles motioned one of the oddly-shaped Krell crewmembers over to where we stood and spoke to him quietly. I looked the alien over since I'd never been this close to one of these Krell folks before. He was shaped vaguely like a pyramid or an upside-down top. I couldn't see if he had a mouth, but he more than made up for it with some extra eyes, five of them, circling the apex of his five-sided body.
"Kaskel will lead you to the Collector," said Guiles. "Good luck."
"Follow me, please." said Kaskel as he raised one of his five arms in a perfectly human gesture. I almost giggled, but caught myself in time. Then, without turning, the alien started for the door of the control room, his stubby little legs making good speed despite their shortness. Guiles and Maxwell watched wordlessly as Kaskel and I left the room.
"Do you think he suspects anything?" asked Guiles when they were alone again. "He seems to be a pretty bright lad."
"Tom Darby has no real evidence to support any suspicions," answered Maxwell gravely. "Without any proper frame of reference he can form no conclusions. Your secret is safe- for now."
"If he catches on he might get reckless."
"I doubt he will give it another thought. Although you could have been more graphic when describing your deaths."
"Yeah, but I don't like to think about them that much," said Guiles sadly.
"Come in my boy," I heard the Collector say. "Come in." Then I saw him reclining on a perfectly normal couch on the far side of the room. "Come over and take a seat. I had little success in attempting to sleep and thought it was high time we had a little chat. No doubt you have many questions. I promise to answer them as best I can."
"Thank you Sir," I said as I sat across from him in the chair he'd indicated. "There are a few things I've been wondering about."
"Only a few? You must be fairly brimming over with them or you possess less curiosity than your species is famous for having."
"Hmm," I said, not knowing where to begin.
"Come come, my boy, I shan't be offended. Surely you realize that by now."
"Well, I was wondering why we had to use a ship at all to rescue Sarah. I mean, you have all those teleport things in the Museum, so why not just use one of them?"
"Excellent question, Tom. Why not indeed?"
"You seem to be able to do anything Sir, or almost anything. Why do it this way? It seems kind of- well, reckless."
"Indeed, it is reckless, reckless in the extreme. But I do have good reasons for going about it this way. No doubt you've begun to question my sanity. I'm aware my companions have begun to do so."
I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair, not really knowing what to say.
"You've been told, no doubt, that if we were discovered by my people we would all be in the most extreme danger."
"Good, I wouldn't want you to remain unaware of the stakes we're playing for. It would mean my death, or worse, not to mention the danger to my employees. Yes, it would be most unfortunate indeed for us to be compromised. But know you this: I'd give my life gladly to save Sarah. She means everything to me."
"I can understand that, Sir. I feel the same way about the woman I love. But Sir..."
"Please, call me Gray. Each time you call me 'Sir' I want to look over my shoulder to see if my father has come into the room behind me. Stern fellow, wouldn't approve of what I do. No, not at all."
"Well then, Gray..." I almost stuttered over the name. "I still don't understand why you couldn't have stayed in the Museum and rescued Sarah from there."
"For the simple reason that it wouldn't have removed the danger. She would still be at risk, as would the Museum and everyone in it. I have to use this ship to remove that threat. Not only to her, the Museum, and my employees, but to the rest of the cosmos itself. This is no ordinary foe we are up against. These people are far too cunning for the good of all concerned. Sarah was not kidnapped at random, you know, but as part of a larger plot to gain power. These villains seek absolute power over everyone and everything in the universe. A stupid conceit, as if any one species could hope to rule so big an empire." He snorted in derision. "No, this warlord, this Akeptzaxodur creature wants to use Sarah as a lever to force me to turn this ship over to him. He lusts after the weaponry aboard, the power it represents. He's quite mad, you know," the Collector said gently. He stared down at the floor as his voice trailed off into silence. Then he looked up at me with those penetrating eyes, as if he could see right through to my soul.
"I know why Guiles and Maxwell insisted that you accompany us on this mission," he said mysteriously. "They hope that my concern for you will keep me from taking any rash action which would put me at risk. No doubt they have expressed the thought that I've become irrational, nearly insane, as it were."
"Well, yes. But not in so many words. They're all worried about you, but they'd follow you into hell if that's where you intended to go. For Sarah's sake, and for yours too."
"Such loyalty," he said. "I am truly touched. But not by madness, I assure you. I do have a plan, but they must all play their parts perfectly if we are to succeed. These villains must have no hint that we have the wherewithall to defeat them on their own terms, or Sarah's life is truly forfeit."
"But you could bring her back to life!" I blurted out the words as if they were an accusation.
"So," he said in a cold voice. "Guiles has seen fit to tell you that. Yes, I could resurrect her easily. But how would she feel about it? Did you consider that? Would you want your lover to know that you let her die just to save yourself the trouble of leaving the house? She would remember the agony of her torture, her death, and know that you merely waited for some impersonal machinery to retrieve her from the grave. That is a price I am unwilling to pay. Sarah must be saved, not merely revived. She must be spared that pain of having to die. Can you understand that, my boy?"
"Yes," I said simply. What else could I say? I agreed with his motives, anyway, if not his methods. "Do the ends justify the means?"
"Hardly ever, my boy. Hardly ever. Justification is out of the question. But there are other lives at stake here, for this is a most dangerous game. If these fiends are not stopped here and now, who could ever be safe? All sentient life is at risk. If my Museum can be attacked with impunity, then anyone anywhere can be attacked as well. Someone has assisted these Lexaptuorkellnast people to attain the technology necessary to enter and leave my Museum at will. If this is not checked here and now, then there is no safety anywhere. I fear for the whole of creation, if we fall... the universe may well fall to them as well. This ship and ourselves are all that stand in their way. My companions all must act as if they think me mad with grief, for we were not safe from observation until we left the Museum. Even now we may be under scrutiny. I must continue to appear as if I am unable to think, to only react in an insane manner."
"But why tell me? What if I give it away somehow?"
"That is highly unlikely. Your mind would be a closed book to them, for you are far to alien to them to be understood. Your species is too primitive, if I may use the term without insult, for them to understand. They will see you only as an object of contempt, a savage beneath their notice."
"Then why tell me anything at all? Why run the risk of my making a mistake that could cost lives?"
"I am loath to treat you as a savage, Tom. In all my centuries of life I have never wished to look down upon other people simply because they are not of a species as ancient as my own. Your people are known for their unwillingness to accept any defeat, to snatch victory from the very teeth of disaster, to rise above that which others consider to be your limits, and persevere by sheer willpower alone. Someday you will find yourselves to have been the founders of the greatest benevolent empire ever to grace your particular timeline. That day may be long in arriving, but arrive it will, and you will be worthy of it. To put it simply: I have faith in you. You will not fail me. Indeed, you cannot, by reason of your very nature.
If anything should happen to me, I want you to carry a message to Maxwell and the others. They are to continue the operation as if I were still here. They can never surrender, for the stakes are too high. Furthermore, they must find the power behind these villains and crush it, crush it completely, or all will be lost." The Collector touched a control on the table beside his couch. I heard a quiet bell-like sound as he rose and shook my hand. "You may also tell them that I was never as insane as I seemed, and that my madness was feigned to allow our enemy to underestimate us. We may well need that advantage. That is all of the message. A crewman will be waiting outside the door to show you to your quarters. I shall see you on the Bridge in the morning. Good night, my boy."
"Good night, Gray." I said absently. I turned and walked to the door. In the vestibule I paused between the closed doors and sank back against the wall as tired as I have ever been in my life. "Damn..." I whispered to myself in awe.
"Approaching the indicated coordinates, Sir. We have multiple targets detected," Lucas said to the Collector as I walked up. The Collector motioned me to take a seat next to him. He looked fresh as a daisy even though I knew he'd hardly slept in the last three days. After all, it was his girlfriend we were trying to save.
"Very good Lucas," said the Collector. "Maintain stealth mode and give us a visual on the main screen."
When the viewscreen lit up to show a sea of unfamiliar stars I hardly noticed how beautiful it was. I guess I was just worried about what we were getting into. I'd even stopped gaping at the scale of things in this ship; so it was nine miles long and packed with sudden death, so what? Stick to the job at hand, I thought as I drug my attention back to here and now. Lucas punched a few buttons and some of those stars began blinking on and off. Those must have been the targets he'd mentioned.
"Magnify," said the Collector. "Let's see what we've come so far to find."
My jaw dropped as the view on the screen changed to show us more detail. There must have been hundreds of ships out there! The largest looked like a giant pincushion, several more looked like steam-irons, and then there were hundreds of smaller, football-shaped ones, darting around like gnats swarming. I could feel my mouth go dry as I stared at the screen.
"Are we in scanning range yet?" asked Guiles Thornby.
"Just barely," said Fox.
"Can you locate Sarah in all of that?" I asked.
"Not yet, we're still too far out to scan the insides of all of those ships."
"Ten to one she's on that Carrier," Guiles said, pointing at the giant pincushion. "Although if they were smart they'd have put her into one of the smallest ships just to make her harder to find."
"If they were smart," said the Collector, "they wouldn't have risked kidnapping her in the first place. Let us hope that they have out-smarted themselves. Bring us into scanning range Lucas. Fox, be prepared to time-shift Murder Weapon a fraction of a second so that we can avoid any chance of detection. Those pirates will have excellent scanning gear of their own."
"We are secure from their scans," said Lucas. "Even if they could duplicate our own gear they couldn't get a spy-beam inside Murder Weapon now. I took the liberty of random-modulating our shields. Even the Museum couldn't overhear us now."
"But the power drain!" said Guiles.
"Nothing our generators can't handle," replied Lucas. "According to the Krell's preliminary report, the pirates don't have anything like the power necessary to scan inside Murder Weapon. They could find us, but not overhear us."
The Collector seemed to relax visibly at this news. Good, I thought to myself. He's going to drop this acting crazy and get back to normal!
"We must be ready at a moments notice," said Maxwell. "If we are to be successful we will need to move swiftly to rescue Sarah."
"We're having trouble getting reliable readings with the scanners Sir," said Fox. "Without using enough power to reveal ourselves we can't scan very deeply into any but the smallest of their ships."
"Have you determined exactly how much it would take to let them know we're out here?" asked Guiles.
"Not exactly, Guiles. We have to assume that the smaller ships have much less sensitive sensors than the others. If we don't, we run the risk of giving away our position... Or at least the fact that we're out here in the first place. I've asked the Science Team for an evaluation of the limits, but they are still working on it."
"Sir," said Maxwell quietly to the Collector. "We could launch a probe in full stealth mode. It could scan the pirates at full power. It's own position would be revealed, but ours would not."
"Not quite yet, Maxwell. That would give the pirates some indication that we were indeed in the vicinity. As of yet they are acting as if they are completely ignorant of our presence. I want to maintain that ignorance as long as possible."
"This is kind of like fishing with your bare hands," I said. The Collector looked at me and raised one eyebrow.
"Is it indeed?" He said. "How so?"
"Well, it's like we're just laying on a rock, or something, out in a river near a school of fish. Being very careful not to make any moves that would frighten them. When the one you want gets close enough, you have to move quickly to snatch him up out of the water. Of course, the rest of them will scatter as soon as you make a splash, but you do get the one fish... If you do it right. Personally, I'd rather be using a rod and reel. You can catch more fish that way"
"A good analogy, Tom. I understand what you mean. I'd rather we had the proper 'fishing tackle' myself, but what would we use for bait? And if we dangle our hook in the water we take the chance of frightening all of our little 'fish' away." The Collector said, rubbing his chin in thought. "We will give it a bit more time, but I think we are nearly ready to give up lying in wait. I, for one, am quite ready to cast out a line and see what kind of bait these hungry fish will strike. Maxwell, have the Science Team ready a stealth probe. Make it capable of time-shifting to conceal itself. I want every bit of information about their sensors, there may be a 'blind spot' we can take advantage of in their systems."
"Very good, Sir. I will see to it myself," Maxwell said, with one of those quick smiles lighting his android face like a flashbulb. He turned away and strode to the elevator. I watched him walk away with a twinge of jealousy. At least he had something to do. I looked around at everyone in the control room, busy at their stations. All this waiting was beginning to get on my nerves. I wished that something would happen soon. The pirates could be torturing Sarah right now, for all we knew.
"The probe is ready Sir," said Maxwell as he returned. He'd only been gone half an hour at the most. "Some of the parts had to be replicated from patterns. Perhaps we should consider fabricating more probes with time-shift abilities for future use."
"I'll keep that in mind, Maxwell. Launch the probe on my mark, time shift it as soon as it clears the shields. Fox, decrease shield strength to twenty percent."
"I've been thinking about Mr. Darby's fishing analogy. I believe that the best 'bait' in this case would be the ship itself, but if we appear to be invincible our 'fish' may never come close enough for us to catch. I think that we have been 'baited' out here ourselves and I don't like the implications of that at all."
"Shields reduced," said Fox. "Further orders Sir?"
"Yes, all Scouts to their fighters," said the Collector as he turned to face the six alien Scouts. They stood and turned to leave the control room. "Be ready for immediate launch. Target those smaller pirate ships and use as many drones as each of you can control. I wish it to appear that we have much greater numbers than we actually do. I want lots of communications traffic between the drones and yourselves, in clear mind you, so that we can foster that illusion."
"We are to be overheard?" asked Dezy in her melodious voice.
"That should give them something to worry about," added Norr.
"Yes, start with fifty drones apiece. Call for replacements as needed. Assume the identity of Flight Leaders and do as much damage as possible, but keep up the chatter! Murder Weapon will be using minimal firepower to keep the destroyers busy and draw the fire of their large-scale weapons. As soon as Sarah is located Guiles and Maxwell will go in after her. The rest of us will have to keep the pirates distracted so that Guiles and Maxwell can rescue her. Understood?"
"We shall be triumphant," snarled Landerakh in his grating voice. I could see his fingers curl as if they were around the throats of some unlucky pirates already. I shuddered. I wouldn't want that alien for an enemy! "They will rue the day that ever laid hands on Mistress Sarah!"
"To your ships, my friends. Good hunting! Lucas, launch the probe."
I looked at Guiles as the Scouts left for their fighters. He was looking at the Collector as if he understood the crazy act that his boss had been putting on since Sarah had been kidnapped. I saw him nod as if he now approved what the Collector had been doing.
"Scan those ships and find us a weakness to exploit. We have to know Sarah's exact location before we can move against the pirates."
"Good, save the Flagship for last... If any of them can locate us it will be that ship."
"No sign of her yet, switching to the Flagship now."
Lucas whistled in surprise.
"What is it, Lucas?" asked the Collector.
"Thirty-four thousand ships, even if all but thirteen of them are small fighters. That's still a sizable fleet for us to have to take on."
"Hah!" exclaimed Guiles. "Maxwell could handle them by himself." Maxwell flashed another of his quick grins. "We could have stayed home and let him have some fun on his own."
"I might need a little help," said Maxwell. "If we wish to leave some of them alive, that is."
"Gentlemen..." began the Collector.
"Sir!" interrupted Fox. "The scan shows an area inside the Flagship that's been Time-shifted!"
"What? Impossible!" exclaimed the Collector."Unless..."
"They can't have time-shift abilities!" said Guiles. "Unless they captured a time traveler and forced him to help them."
"Or one sought them out as allies," amended the Collector. "It would explain the ease of their entry and exit from the Museum."
"All bets are off, now. They'd be holding her in that time-shifted area..." said Guiles.
"Where we couldn't scan for her no matter what," added Lucas.
"This does complicate matters," said the Collector quietly. "Whether ally or captive, that time traveler cannot be allowed to remain with those pirates. They could do untold damage to history if they can glean the secrets of a time capsule from it's operator. Scan at full power. It doesn't matter if the probe is revealed or not, now. The rules of the game have been changed."
"Changed?" hissed Guiles. "They've been tossed out the airlock!"
"Power increased on the scans, Sir. Sarah is not on any of their ships, unless she is in the area of time-shift."
"But we know she's here," I said. "Don't we?"
"Yes Tom, this is where my pet found her. She is here. She must be in the time capsule, inside that shifted area."
"Sir, the probe has been located. Our own position is still secure, but the probe is being hailed from the Flagship."
"Relay the signal here, Fox. We must pretend to be the probe, for now. We shall play the cards as they have been dealt, but everyone must take care. Not a word about the probe or our only advantage will be nullified."
"Ready to answer the hail, Sir. Relay through the probe is secure, it can't be traced to our position."
"Good, put it on the main viewer, Lucas."
As the image on the big viewscreen shimmered and changed, I wondered what the pirates would look like. I had accepted the aliens from the Museum as people without a second thought, but I didn't think that an evil alien would be so easy to deal with. I was prepared for monsters, for ugliness, weirdness in the extreme. I wasn't disappointed.
As the static on the screen cleared I could see into what had to be the bridge of the pirate flagship. The pirate Captain was everything I'd thought, and more. He was sprawled in some kind of command chair in the center of his control room, his tentacles caressing the chair as if it were a security blanket. He looked like something washed up on a beach, dead and rotting. His pale, greenish hide was wart encrusted and had stiff, bristly hairs sprouting randomly all over it. He had three eyes set in a triangle in his neckless head, at least seven tentacles that I could count, and his fanged mouth slobbered as he spoke.
"I am Akeptzaxodur of the Lexaptuorkellnast and you are my prisoners! Lower your pitiful shields and prepare to be boarded, scum! I have the guns of my entire fleet trained on your position, you are helpless before the might of the Lexaptuorkellnast. Surrender, and I promise your deaths will be mercifully quick. Oppose us and your tortures shall be endless! All will bow to the might of Akeptzaxodur! Surrender your ship now!"
"Confident sort, isn't he?" quipped Guiles as the pirate paused for breath.
"Hmmm," said the Collector. "Yes, he is."
"Let me handle this, Captain." came a voice from off-screen. It was mellow, warm, and mocking. Right away I disliked the owner of that voice. A human-looking man stepped into the picture from somewhere off to the side of the pirate. He was average sized, with short dark hair framing a mocking face that made me want to smash it in. He smiled, his eyes twinkling with cruel delight from underneath dark eyebrows. If he'd had a moustache he'd have been twirling the tips of it as he considered what to say next. He struck me as being totally insane, just by standing there. He looked as if he were enjoying the situation immensely.
"Bloody hell..." said Guiles angrily.
"Oh my giddy Aunt." said the Collector.
"Hello Father," said the madman to the Collector.
"Aren't you surprised to see me, Father? I should think so, after all the trouble I've taken to conceal myself. By the way, I have your 'concubine' as my prisoner. Wouldn't the High Council be interested in knowing that you've been creating an artificial person? Not to mention that it serves you as a sexual slave. What's the matter Father, women of your own species not good enough for you any longer?"
"We aren't father and son, Roravik. I was never married to your mother. Besides, you were already over a hundred years old when I first met her. I suppose I needn't ask what you are doing allied with those Lexaptuorkellnast pirates. I see it all now, this whole affair has been directed at me. You are undoubtedly making an attempt to murder yet another of your mother's former lovers. This time it's my turn."
"I see you've grasped the essentials of the situation."
"Roravik, let the girl go before it's too late..." began the Collector. He seemed to age right in front of my eyes. All the energy he'd shown before visibly drained away, leaving him looking like a ruined husk of a man. Looking at him now I could well believe he was over two thousand years old.
"My name is not Roravik!" shouted the madman. "I am Mordred, son of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon! There is no Roravik, only Mordred, a fact you would do well to remember if you wish to keep your synthetic sex-toy undamaged!" Spittle flew from Mordred's mouth as he raged at the Collector. This guy definitely belonged in a loony bin somewhere. I wondered how he'd gotten away from his keeper. I shook my head to banish that sort of thought as Mordred regained control of his emotions and began speaking again. "You try my patience, old man, with your pitiful pleas for your concubine's safety. Another interruption and it dies in as much agony as my allies can devise."
"What is it you want then, Mordred?" asked the Collector, with defeat in his voice.
"Why, isn't it obvious? I want that ship, and the power it will give me. With that much power, my allies and I will be unbeatable. We can rule unopposed over an empire that spans this galaxy, perhaps even extending to the other galaxies nearby. I have already equipped their larger ships with time travel machinery. We will be unstoppable! I shall found a dynasty that will endure throughout all time!"
"You what?" gasped the Collector. "You've given those pirates the secrets of time travel? How could you... Why? In the name of all that's holy, why?"
"Be silent, old man. You know the penalty for opposing my will. I want that ship, that is all you need to know. I will have it- or I will have your toy tortured to death before your eyes."
"That and more," said Mordred. "But compliments will avail you naught. Vacate that ship and you shall have your 'lover' returned to you. Refuse and it... she, if you insist- will be handed over to my allies for their pleasure."
"It will take some time to program the ship's computer to accept your orders," said the Collector weakly.
"You are stalling for time, old man. Perhaps you hope to attack and free your 'toy' before my allies can destroy you. Ha! They have their orders- at your first sign of resistance each ship will time-jump to different eras and seek you out... Before you are even aware of their threat! You see, I have thought of everything. That is something that I learned from you, Father."
"I am not your Father, you ungrateful whelp!" shouted the Collector. "True, I was one of your mother's lovers, but none of my blood flows in your veins."
"Temper, temper, old man. Remember your blood pressure. I wouldn't want you to have a stroke before you turn that magnificent weapon over to me," said Mordred with a grin. The longer he spoke, the more I wanted to smash his smug face in with my fists.
"Very well," said the Collector quietly. "I will begin the preparations to give you control of the ship. But if Sarah is harmed, I will hunt you down like the animal that you are."
"Your threats are meaningless, old man. You have no strength to back them up. Surrender quickly, or the concubine dies. Akeptzaxodur, please alert your crews to stand by with all weapons armed. Oh, and close out this communications channel, if you'd be so kind."
"It is done," said the pirate Captain. "All ships are standing by to time-travel or attack at your command, Mordred. Communications, close channel."
On the bridge of Murder Weapon, the screen went dark with the face of Mordred gloating to the very last. For a moment, no one spoke.
"They are still targeting the probe instead of us," said Fox. "What are your orders, Sir?"
"We are still able to defeat their spy-beams?" asked the Collector.
"Yes Sir, they cannot break through to overhear us," replied Lucas.
"OK," said Guiles. "What kind of rabbit are you going to pull out of this hat?"
"A very, very big rabbit Guiles," said the Collector in a firm voice. "In fact, I shouldn't be at all surprised if it turned out to be a sabertoothed rabbit." I turned to look at him and saw the defeat had fallen from him like an old coat. I realized that he'd been acting again- that he'd never had any intention of giving up! "That boy has a lot to learn about warfare," said the Collector grimly. "And I'm just the 'old man' to teach him! Well Tom, it seems as if our fish has taken the bait- hook, line, and sinker. Now let's reel him in and roast him over a slow fire." The anger in the Collector's voice was thick enough to cut with a knife. I almost began to feel sorry for Mordred... Almost, but not quite.
"Glad to see you weren't really giving up," I said to the Collector. "What's our gameplan now, Gray?" It was the first time I'd used the Collector's real name without stuttering. It felt good, like he was now one of my oldest friends instead of some alien I'd barely known.
"Now? Well- to use one of your planet's very apt phrases, Tom... Now we're going to kick some major-league butt!" I could see Maxwell grin for a moment as he and Guiles exchanged meaningful looks. I looked around at the rest of the crew and saw grim smiles on every face. I think even the Krell were smiling, but with them it was hard to tell.
"Fox, full scans of those ships," said the Collector rapidly. "I want the location of each time- travel apparatus pinpointed. Lucas, prepare to launch all fighters. Guiles, I want you and Tom aboard your fighters and ready to launch. I'll need you both to cover for me as I fly a shuttle. The three of us are going to go get Sarah back."
"Sir," said Maxwell. "You are leaving the ship?"
"That's right, Maxwell. Murder Weapon is now under your command. You were worried about the possibility of my misusing Murder Weapon- this way, that worry is eliminated."
"Yes Sir!" said Maxwell. "Your orders?"
"I want pinpoint strikes on the time-travel machinery in each of those ships. Spare as many lives as possible, but the Lexaptuorkellnast pirates cannot be allowed access to time travel. If necessary, destroy the entire fleet but do not allow a single one of them to time-jump! If one of those ships escape into the past or future, all is lost."
"Understood Sir," said Maxwell. "You can depend on me."
"I shall, Maxwell- I shall. Guiles, Tom, come with me. Gentlemen," said the Collector as he looked around at everyone on the bridge... "Good hunting. Computer, log this order. As of this time, this day, you will follow Maxwell's orders as if they were my own."
"So logged, Collector." said the ship's computer. "Until further notice, Maxwell is in command." "Maxwell, the ship is yours."
The Collector turned and made his way toward the elevator as Guiles and myself followed. As the elevator doors closed I could hear the murmur of Maxwell's voice giving orders to the crew.
"Not at all, my boy. I simply removed the part of his programming that made him kill, to serve his builders as nothing but a weapon. He is now like all of us in the fact that he can choose not to kill. I merely gave him free will."
"That's right," said Guiles gently. "Maxwell is still the walking destroyer that he was built to be, but now he's got a- well, I guess 'conscience' is the best word."
"Spooky," I replied. "Hard to believe he's a machine. OK, what do we do once we're out of the ship?"
"We use the confusion our Scouts will create with their attack to sneak aboard the pirate flagship. Sarah has to be in Roravik's time capsule, the one part of the flagship our scans couldn't penetrate. We know where the capsule is, our only problem should be getting to it," said Guiles.
"Precisely," said the Collector. "And getting her out of it. We can always teleport back to Murder Weapon if we have to, rather than fly back."
"What was that crack Roravik made about being Mordred?" I asked. "The real Mordred, like from Camelot? Knights of the Round Table, Merlin- that Mordred?"
"Yes," the Collector sighed. "He actually believes himself to be the bastard son of the legendary King Arthur of Camelot. Something his Mother told him, evidently. Since she died he's been stalking and murdering his Mother's lovers. The government of my homeworld has charged him with thirty-seven murders, three of them were members of the High Council themselves. Although... each time he's been locked away somewhere awaiting trial or execution he has escaped. I'm afraid he's just as deranged as she became."
"She died, raving mad, in an asylum. She had become so insane that she murdered a Council Member in order to try and put Roravik in power as the President of the High Council. She was tried and sentenced to the asylum for the rest of her life."
"But Mordred?" I asked. "Why does he think he's Mordred?"
"My people are a race of time travelers," said the Collector. "Given an infinity of timelines, not only is anything possible, but every single possibility is required! She may have actually found a real King Arthur and seduced him. Who knows? She wasn't insane, that I could tell, when I knew her. But she did lust for power and position. That is why I finally dissolved our affair. I wanted nothing to do with that sort of thing."
I could see that it hurt the Collector to talk about it so I shut up. We spent the rest of the elevator ride in silence.
"A fugue sequence?"
"Exactly, if we succeed it will appear that we will have fired from twelve different locations simultaneously. Lucas, we must use pinpoint accuracy to destroy the time-travel apparatus without destroying the ships themselves. I assume that you can focus the weapons sharply enough to do so?"
"Easily Maxwell, if we use the secondary or tertiary weapons systems, the primaries are just too big. I couldn't possibly focus a two mile-wide particle beam to that small a diameter. The tertiaries would be the best choice- I can focus those down to a ten-foot diameter beam."
"Do so now."
"Fugue sequence calculated," said Fox.
"Good," said Maxwell. "When we complete the fugue I want you to engage the graviton drive, the artificial black hole it uses should impair the pirates ability to target our fighters."
"The fighters and drones are ready for launch," said Lucas.
"When the Collector signals he is ready we will begin the attack."
"Ready Tom?" I heard the Collector's voice in my headphones.
"Clean and green," I said and chuckled as I thought of how much that sounded like a line from an old war movie.
"I take that as a 'Yes'," I heard the Collector say. "Maxwell, begin the attack."
"Yes Sir," came Maxwell's reply. "Launch the fighters, Lucas."
A door irised open in front of us and I could see the stars blazing gloriously through it.
"Launch the Drones," I heard Maxwell say. "Launch the rescue team."
Then some rude giant kicked me in the seat of the pants and then sat in my lap. I was pressed down into my seat like I'd just gained a couple of hundred pounds as we leapt out of Murder Weapon and into the ride of my life.
"Begin fugue sequence," said Maxwell.
"Yes Sir," replied Fox. "Starting now."
Murder Weapon seemed to jerk slightly as the view on the bridge's screen changed.
"Fire, disengage stealth mode. Engage graviton drive. Target the weapons emitters of the flagship and fire at will. Report, Fox."
"We got all of them, Maxwell! No time jump equipment is intact in the whole fleet. scanners report that the flagship has only the time-shifted area as the only functioning chrono-tech aboard. The rest is all scrap, fleetwide."
"Krell gunners returning fire to all of the pirates that have managed to locate us."
"Good, now we wait and act as a decoy to give the Collector time to retrieve Sarah."
"Head for the flagship," came the Collector's voice through my headphones. "We haven't much time."
"I'm with you Gray," I said as I saw Guiles blast his pirate to dust.
"Ready," said Guiles. "Let's go!"
Explosions winked all around us like lights on a Christmas tree as we got deeper into the pirate fleet.
"Tom! Behind you," yelled the Collector.
"Oh yeah?" I said as I remembered a maneuver from the flight-sim. I twisted the throttle as far as it would go and shot ahead like a bullet. Then I pushed down on the handgrips, to drop beneath the pirate, and hit the brakes. I saw the pirate zoom overhead and so I pulled up on the controls, firing as I did. He blew up nicely too.
"Good move Tom," said Guiles. "There's the docking bay!"
Next thing I knew, we were inside and parking. There weren't any guards to be seen as I jumped out of Widow Maker. Sarah was as good as rescued, if we could just get to her.
"That ought to ruin the aim of any pirates that can draw a bead on us," added Lucas.
"Yes," replied Maxwell calmly. "The artificial Black Holes of the drive will alter the trajectory of any incoming beam or missile. As well as negating anything aimed at us, it will soak up the energies of any weapon and leave us unharmed. How are the weapons emitters holding up?"
"The tertiaries are overheating a bit," said Lucas. "I've focused the secondaries down to the same beam width and started using them in order to let the tertiaries cool off."
"Everything is still in good shape," said Fox. "Shields are holding and weapons are well within their limits. We seem to be in good shape- so far."
"And the scouts?" asked Maxwell.
"Everyone is still with us."
"Good. Maintain communications traffic with the drones," replied Maxwell. "The illusion of greater numbers than we actually possess may turn out to be our greatest advantage over the pirates."
"Let me hear the signals from our scouts. If any of them need covering fire have the Krell gunners take care of it."
"Right Maxwell," said Fox. "I'm already on it. Commo traffic routed to the speaker in the Captain's chair now."
"The disabled pirate ships are beginning to add their firepower to their smaller fighters," said Lucas. "Our scouts may need some back-up in the next few minutes."
"The Krell are on it," said Fox. "For a non-violent species, they make damn good gunners."
"They are adaptable," said Maxwell. "As we all must be for Sarah to be rescued safely."
"I have two of them monitoring the Collector's communications frequency," said Lucas. "If he needs us, we'll be there. That's one call I damn sure don't want to miss."
"Have the Medical section standing by," Maxwell added. "Just in case all does not go according to plan. I will be listening to the scouts' transmissions for the next few minutes."
So far, the Collectors forces had not suffered a single casualty.
"This can't go on much longer," Guiles said.
"No," sighed the Collector. "We are stretching our luck very thinly indeed, just to have gotten this far."
"How much longer 'til we can get to Sarah?" I asked. "Any idea?"
"Soon, Tom. My pet is leading us there by the safest path, not the most direct."
A bolt of energy struck the wall next to us. Weapons fire, but from behind us! The three of us ducked, Guiles and myself returned fire as quickly as we could. A harsh, shrieking wail began to sound in the corridors of the pirate flagship. Our luck had changed- the alarm had been given.
"Damn," said Guiles quietly and calmly.
"I agree," said the Collector. "From this point on we'll be facing even greater odds."
"A boarding party?" Akeptzaxodur's slobbering voice was tinged with both amazement and confusion.
"A deception," cried Mordred. "The entire battle was a feint! My Father is here, aboard your ship. Even now he is seeking his concubine. Your fleet has failed."
"Go! Now! Kill the female. She is of no further use to us. My guards will capture your parent. Then we shall rejoice in the sounds of his agonies."
"You haven't captured him yet," said Mordred. "But you are right, the girl is no longer useful."
"Go then, take a squad of my bodyguards and eliminate her!"
"Yes," said Mordred. "As you 'command'. When my Father and his 'toy' are dead I will replace the time-jump machinery and we will continue with our plan of conquest throughout the universe!"
"Enough talk! Kill them, kill them all!" screamed the pirate Captain. "We have come too far to have my plans ruined by your parent. Guards, go with Mordred. Gunnery crew, instruct all ships to fire upon the alien's vessel. Bring all weapons to bear upon it. If we cannot posses it, we will destroy it! Utterly!"
Mordred smiled at the thought. His allies were doomed, useless. They had no chance against Murder Weapon. His thoughts then turned to killing the Collector, and after that- escape. Treachery had always been his favorite stratagem.
Since the alarm had been given, the pirates had found us time and time again. Guiles and I were shooting to disable, but still the dead and wounded were piling up. The Collector was only using a stun-gun of some kind, but the guns that Guiles and I carried were lethal. I guess I was never cut out to be a soldier. I'd already seen enough carnage to give me nightmares for the rest of my life. Another ambush... smoke, the flare of weapons, we return fire and forge ahead across the bodies of alien pirates. Finally the Collector's pet led us to some kind of hazy, black wall that blocked the rest of the corridor.
"This is it," said Guiles. "That's the boundary of the time-shift. Sarah is on the other side of that."
"Yes," said the Collector. "Finally, we're here. Now I have to open a passageway through the time- shifted region." He began punching numbers into some kind of horn-shaped gadget that he'd carried on a strap. It sprouted legs like a camera tripod and he set it down, pointed at the black wall. I could hear a quiet humming from the gadget, but that was it. No flashing lights, no blare of sound, just a hum like white-noise from a guitar amp.
"How long will it take?" I asked.
"Just a few minutes," the Collector said. "It has to find the exact amount of the shift and calculate the reversal factor, then apply it."
"Look sharp Tom, " said Guiles. "They know where we were headed and they might hit us again at any time. All it takes is for one of them to guess that we already made it here and we'll be hip-deep in guards again."
"Right," I said, putting a fresh power-cell into my gun. "I'm ready to get this over with."
"You just loaded the explosive rounds, Tom."
"I had too, Guiles. The rest of the power-cells need recharging."
"Right, give them here and I'll plug them into my charger." I handed Guiles the drained cells and turned to look back up the corridor, the way we'd come in.
"When the passageway appears I'll go through and release Sarah," began the Collector. "Guiles, you and Tom..."
"I'm going with you," I interrupted. "You'll need someone to watch your back."
"Very well Tom, thank you."
"It's starting," said Guiles. "The passageway is opening."
"Good," I said. "Let's get..."
"More guards," yelled Guiles.
I fired once, quickly. I wasn't even aiming at anything, I just reacted. The explosive round was deafening in the corridor's confined space. When the smoke cleared I couldn't see any more guards.
"Oh my, " said the Collector sadly.
I thought I was going to be sick. "I never meant..." I mumbled.
"Tom," said Guiles. "It was them or us. They'd have killed us without a second thought. And Sarah would still be their prisoner."
"They didn't feel a thing Tom," said the Collector quietly. "It was over with too quickly. Come, Sarah needs us."
The Collector's pet ball of light floated ahead of us as we entered the hole into the time-shift.
"Roravik's capsule," said the Collector.
"Huh?" I asked dumbly. "Mordred's time machine?"
"Exactly," said the Collector as he pulled a gadget out of his pocket, aimed it at the machine, and started punching buttons rapidly. "Quiet now while I pick the lock."
"Right," I said as I looked around so watch for more guards. "What happens if you can't get it open?"
"My boy, before I left my homeworld I used to design these things. Never fear, I can open it. We always designed a way to get into one of these in an emergency. Computer programmers on your world do the same thing with systems that they design."
There was a loud click and a hidden door in the machine opened slightly. We pushed it open and went through into a short, un-lit tunnel to reach another pair of doors. These swung open at a touch and we entered a huge room.
"Weird," I said. "Did we get smaller as we came in, or is this thing bigger on the inside than it is on the outside?"
"Another engineering trick," said the Collector. "We aren't actually 'inside' the casing that we entered. The 'outside', where we picked the lock, doesn't really wrap around this area. It's more like a portable doorway than an outside skin."
"I'll believe it, but just because it's you telling me so. Otherwise I'd think we were both nuts."
The room was roughly hexagonal, about thirty feet on a side. I couldn't tell where the lights were coming from, but it was well lit. The room was featureless except for a hexagonal control panel sprouting up from the center of the floor like a mechanical mushroom and another set of doors set into the far wall. "If this is Mordred's time-vehicle, couldn't we just hijack it. Call Guiles inside and zip over to Murder Weapon?"
"Look at the control panel, Tom. Roravik has removed several vital components of the drive controls. No doubt to keep his allies from disposing of him and simply stealing the capsule."
I saw some access panels on the control panel were open. Don't know why I didn't notice them before, but I took the Collector at his word. We had no easy escape that way, then. We crossed the room and passed through the other doors, moving deeper into the time-machine. The Collector muttered something that I didn't understand to his pet and it led us down a maze of hallways and stairways. The little ball of light knew exactly where Sarah was being held. All we had to do was follow.
"Won't Mordred have stationed some guards in here?" I asked.
"He wouldn't have permitted it. Too afraid of his allies, I expect. We should be getting close now."
"Good. This is too easy... All this sneaking around inside the vehicle, I mean."
"I understand completely, Tom."
We came to a door that was locked. The Collector's pet stopped there and bobbed in the air like a captive balloon as it waited for us to catch up. The Collector used a gadget that looked like a cross between a screwdriver and a small flashlight to pick the lock. It hummed like a dentist's drill for a few seconds and then the door popped open and inch or so. I guessed that it must have been a different kind of lock from the one on the main doors outside since he didn't use the same gadget to open this door. When the lock clicked open we pushed our way inside and found Sarah.
She was tied to a chair, unconscious, inside a six by six foot cage in the center of the room. I could see a few bruises on her arms and a nasty-looking gash on her forehead. She had been beaten, no doubt. I didn't think it was possible, but I got even angrier when I saw her condition. She was breathing, though.
"I don't have anything to pick the lock of this damned cage," hissed the Collector. "Its too primitive for the devices I brought."
"I can't just shoot the lock, these explosive rounds would kill her."
"Absolutely- too dangerous. But I think I have a way..." He cupped his pet in his hand and placed it down by the lock on the cage door. With his other hand he pointed and made circling motions around the lock itself.
"Cut here, Fu. Sarah needs you to let her out," the Collector said gently. He spoke as if to a small child, calmly, quietly, patiently. The ball of light changed colors rapidly as he took his hand away. It floated there and seemed to get brighter and swell up to twice it's normal size. My jaw dropped when a beam of light, like a laser, came out of the pet and cut exactly where the Collector had traced around the lock. There was a flash, some acrid smoke, and the lock fell out of the door. We were inside the cage in an instant, cutting the ropes that bound Sarah to the chair. The Collector passed a small, whistling device over her head and body and grunted in approval.
"No internal injuries," he said. "Superficial cuts and bruises, she must have struggled with them for a bit." He gave her an injection from a spray-hypo, waved the whistling gadget over her again and put it away. "Medical Scanner," he said without looking up. "I also gave her a general stimulant. She'll be awake in a few minutes."
"Gray?" she mumbled.
"Or sooner," I said.
"I'm here, Beloved. We need to get you out of this place."
"I knew that you'd find me," Sarah said as she stirred. Her voice was getting stronger and she started to push herself out of the chair.
"Gently, my dear. You've had a bad time of it. Gather your strength and we'll leave this place."
"When Fu found me, I knew that you'd be here soon." The ball of light glowed pinkly, as if it were blushing, and swirled around the two of them like one of those over-protective little dogs one of my uncles owned. Sarah stood slowly and the Collector took her into his arms.
"My Love, I'd move the stars in their courses in order to find you again."
"Gray," Sarah said quietly. "It was Roravik, he's the one behind all of this. He's loose again."
"I know, my dear. We've already seen him. I'll settle with him as soon as I have you safely out of here. Can you walk? We have to get you out of this time-shift before we can teleport over to the ship."
"Yes," she said. "I think so... The sooner I'm away from here, the better I'll feel. But Roravik, you must stop him! He's given the pirates the secrets of time-travel!"
"Maxwell took care of that," I said. "They're not going anywhere."
"Tom, I thought that you'd be home by now," she said.
"And leave my friends when they needed help? That ain't my style," I said.
"My dear, that stimulant won't keep you going for long. I suggest that we get started," said the Collector.
"Fu," I said to the Collector's pet. Now that I knew it's name it didn't seem so mysterious. "Lead us out of here."
The ball of light floated out of the door and we followed.
"Now I have you, Father!" came a voice from behind us.
We spun around. Mordred was standing by the time-machine, covering us with some sort of weapon.
"I have waited centuries for this," said Mordred. "Now you shall die, all of you shall die!"
"No!" I shouted.
Everything seemed to go into slow motion. I could see Mordred's finger tightening on the trigger of his weapon. Without thinking, I knocked Sarah and Gray to the floor, out of the way. I felt something hit me in the chest as I raised my own gun and fired three rounds at Mordred. I could see the flashes of smoke and fire as the explosive rounds struck the time-machine. As I fell to the floor I heard the doors of the time-machine slam shut. I saw little pock-marks appear on the surface of the time-machine. Must be Guiles shooting at it. There was a roaring in my ears.
"Tom!" cried Sarah. "Oh Tom, no!"
The light was getting brighter. I could barely see Sarah and the Collector as they knelt next to me. Sarah was crying. The light got even brighter and I felt as if I were floating. No pain, just floating. There was an odd wheezing and groaning noise in the background. The roaring in my ears got louder. I thought I heard Guiles and the Collector both shouting for Maxwell to do something. I couldn't make out the words, the roaring was too loud. The last thing I saw was Sarah's tear-streaked face as the light grew to bright for me to make anything else out. Sarah was safe, I was content. The light was so warm and I felt no pain. I was so tired... I needed to sleep. We'd saved Sarah, the job was done, and it was time for me to get some rest. The roaring faded as the light got brighter. I fell into the light, seemingly forever.
"Very well," he said. "I will still have that ship or destroy it!"
"Captain, our weapons have no effect. The vessel is too well protected."
"Message the fleet."
"Prepare to ram the alien ship. It cannot survive that!"
"Message sent, Captain."
"Full power! All hands, brace for impact!"
"Guiles reports that the Collector and Sarah are safely aboard. Tom Darby was killed aboard the pirate flagship, his body is being processed now."
"Damnation!" shouted Lucas. "What are those fools trying to do now?"
"All of the pirate ships are closing on us at full speed!"
"On screen. Back us away, Fox."
"They're coming too fast! We can't make it!"
"Stupid. So stupid," said Fox.
"They never had a chance," added Lucas.
"Agreed," said Maxwell. "Fox, recall the scouts. All hands, stand down from combat stations. Lucas, take us home."
"I thought I was dead," I gasped.
"You were," said Guiles, grinning at me.
Sarah hugged me as the Collector patted my shoulder. Maxwell looked at me and one of his quick smiles lit his face, then vanished just as quickly.
"You have one of my insubordinate scouts to thank for your return to the living," said the Collector.
He looked at Guiles, who didn't even have the decency to blush.
"You remember the medical exam I gave you?" asked Guiles. "The injection that I said was for your health?"
"Yeah," I replied. "I thought it was a vaccination."
"It was a resurrection transponder," he said. "I thought you would need it before too much longer."
"Well, I did."
"You saved our lives," said Sarah. "Roravik would have killed Gray and myself if it weren't for you."
"What happened after I... died? Did Mordred get away? And the pirates, what happened to them?"
"They... committed suicide," said the Collector with difficulty.
"He may have escaped, but it is unlikely. His capsule was damaged. Remember all of the components that he had removed to keep the pirates from stealing it? As we were teleported to Murder Weapon, I saw that he was trying to escape in it, but I didn't see whether or not he succeeded," said the Collector.
"What happens now?" I asked.
"Now? Now you rest," said Guiles. "Later, we send you home."
"Home? I can still go home?"
"Of course, my boy. Why-ever should you not be able to return to your home? I promised your alien friends that I would return you," said the Collector with a twinkle in his eye.
"But what about this transponder?"
"What about it? I'm afraid," said Guiles. "That you'll just have to learn to live with it." Then he laughed.
"But then I'll never really die, " I said.
"My boy, you earned it. You saved Sarah. You saved myself as well. I will send you home, never fear. Home, for you to live out the rest of your mortal span as any other of your species does. And when that span has run it's course, you will die. Just like all of your species does. The only difference will be that after your death as an old and honored member of your kind, you will reawaken here in the Museum. With the body you now have, I might add, and all the memories of your life intact. Then you may take your place among my scouts. The place that you have earned. I do not give this gift lightly. Rest assured that you have earned it. Now rest, regain your strength, and dream of home."
I lay back and did just that. Before everyone had time to leave the room, I was asleep.
The teleport shimmered and faded away. I was on a back road, on my motorcycle, and the familiar smells of a warm spring night tickled my nose. I was home, and a familiar curve of road stretched out in front of me. I could see the tail-lights of a motorcycle receding before me 'til they passed around the corner. Instinctively I gunned the throttle of my bike and rode around the same curve. There was something that I had to see, and I didn't want to be late.
I rounded the curve and saw a faintly glowing disc stretching across the road. I heard a crash as the other motorcycle rammed into the flying saucer and it's rider tumbled through the air to land inside a familiar cargo bay. I waited. Before too long I saw a tall alien shape step out into the open cargo bay. It was Captain, I was sure. He waved at me. I'm sure he knew that it was me, both in his sickbay with Medic and here outside the flying saucer. He just wanted to make sure that the Collector had managed to get me home safely. Captain went back inside and closed the hatch to the cargo bay. The flying saucer glowed brightly and rose silently from the road. It zoomed off into the night sky as I watched it recede from sight. I wiped a tear from my eyes and headed the motorcycle back the way I'd been going. I needed to get back to my house and make up with my girlfriend. It had been a stupid argument that had sent me off into the night in the first place. It was my fault, I'd started it because I was frustrated with my nowhere job. I just hoped that she'd forgive me.
I looked up into the night sky one more time. I'd come full circle, back where the adventure had begun. Back when the adventure had begun, too. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that some part of me would always be caught in what the Collector had called a time-loop. I would be forever caught up in hitting the flying saucer, seeing the Museum, rescuing Sarah, and coming home the same night. Somehow, it didn't really matter. I could think of worse ways to spend my time, and I still had my whole life ahead of me.
Matter of fact, I had several whole lives ahead of me, but right now I had an apology to make, a relationship to salvage, and a woman to cherish. If I could get her to take me back after the way I'd acted. I revved the throttle of my bike, let out the clutch, and headed for home.
If you like this story and you wish to tell me so you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks for visiting Aphelion!